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One-time standout St. Francis wrestler Sean Sherk is fast-rising star in ultimate fighting

September 18th, 2006 · No Comments · News

by Troy Misko
of the Sportsweek staff

From The Anoka County Union
www.abcpapers.com


Sean Sherk insists he doesn’t enjoy pounding the living daylights out of guys. But he does it anyway.

He does it for the competition.

The adrenaline rush and money that come with fighting, well, they’re just bonuses.

Big bonuses.

Sherk, 33, is a fighter. A professional fighter.

The kind of pugilist you see walking into a cage on a very regular basis on Spike TV. He’s a mixed martial arts fighter — think combat sport combining wrestling, boxing and any martial arts performance you have ever seen — and he’s one of the best in the world at making grown men cry uncle.

So good, in fact, that he’s scheduled to fight for the vacant UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) lightweight title Oct. 14 in Las Vegas.

“I don’t really get a kick out of beating people up,” says Sherk, an Oak Grove resident and 1992 graduate of St. Francis where he was an athlete.

“For me, fighting is about the competition.”

And Sherk loves to compete. Competitive fire courses through his blood. It has been that way as long as he can remember.

“I was a jock growing up, wrestling and playing football and baseball. I always loved to compete, especially in wrestling,” he says. “I loved that one-on-one competition that you get in wrestling. If you win, you receive all the glory or if you lose, it’s all on you.”

Bathed in glory

Sherk bathed in glory throughout an amateur wrestling career that spanned more than 400 matches. But post-high school — Sherk admittedly regrets not wrestling collegiately — there aren’t many wrestling outlets for those who wish to continue with the sport. So in 1994 he turned to weightlifting and martial arts.

His initial foray into martial arts began inconspicuously enough. He had no illusions of grandeur, no wild dreams of becoming one of the world’s best mixed martial arts fighters when he stepped into the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in 1994. Weighing approximately 150 pounds at the time, something like the UFC, which at that point didn’t have weight classes, wasn’t even an option.

“My initial goal was not to fight, but just to train,” he says.

Sherk loves to train. Always has. But he needed more. A self-described “adrenaline junkie” who was the kid who always dared to do the dangerous things other kids wouldn’t dream of, he needed something more to feed his voracious desire to continually take things to another level.

He needed to compete.

“There’s something about stepping into the Octagon, just you and the other guy,” he says, his words practically oozing competitive fire. “They close the door behind you, literally locking the door. It’s all about confronting your fears. You stand there, locked in there with the other guy, and you confront whatever fears you might have.”

Sherk was 4-0 in his fledgling amateur MMA fighting career when a promoter approached him and offered him $500 to become a professional fighter.

‘That seemed like a lot of money at the time,” Sherk recalls. “For me, it was a real easy decision.”

He turned pro, but continued to work as a machinist, somehow shoehorning his full-time job into a schedule jam-packed with training. He improved his record to 15-0 and was ranked 10th in the world when he was, fortuitously it turns out, laid off from his job.

Suddenly, he had more time available to train and compete. He made the most of it.

He made his UFC debut in 2001. Two years later, he was still undefeated (17-0-1) and world’s second-ranked welterweight (170 pounds). He signed a three-fight UFC contract and earned his first UFC title match.

Unfortunately for Sherk, his opponent was Matt Hughes, the UFC’s poster boy and widely considered to be mixed martial arts‚ greatest welterweight champion. Hughes won a five-round unanimous decision.

It was the first loss of Sherk’s career. Even worse, it temporarily spelled the end of his UFC career. The UFC, taking advantage of a clause in Sherk’s contract that allowed it to end his contract if he lost, cut ties with him.

That hurt Sherk as much as any opponent ever could.

“It’s frustrating to be one of the best fighters in the world and have the biggest show turn its back on you,” he says.

Sherk wasn’t going to let that stop him.

He wasn’t done fighting.

Far from it.

Honed his skills

He continued to hone his skills, which include submission wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. He took his MMA wares wherever he could, including Canada, Mexico and the other side of the planet with Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships. It was there, while fighting in front of 20,000 MMA-crazed fans in the Tokyo Dome and on live TV, that he received his nickname, “Muscle Shark.”

He improved his professional record to 28-1-1, maintained a top-five world ranking and returned to the UFC last November. He lost his return fight to Georges St. Pierre, the world’s No.2-ranked 170-pounder, on a technical knockout when St. Pierre caught him with an elbow.

Sherk rebounded with a win in a unanimous three-round decision over Nick Diaz in mid-April.

The UFC to which Sherk has returned isn’t the same entity he left following his loss to Hughes in 2003. It’s bigger. It’s better. It’s popularity is unprecedented.

When he left, the UFC had already evolved from its early days in the 1990s, when it was banned throughout much of the nation because of its not-so-regulated structure and no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled fighting styles. But it had had yet to establish itself in the American consciousness like it has today.

“With all of the exposure MMA has gotten in recent years, the sport has exploded,“ Sherk says. “When I started fighting, it was illegal in most states. They wouldn’t even televise the first UFC on pay per view. It was viewed as barbaric.”

It has become less so in recent years with mandatory drug testing, multiple weight classes and rule changes that require open-fingered gloves for fighters and prohibit head-butting and kicking/kneeing opponents while they are on the mat.

The UFC, buoyed by a contract with Spike TV to produce a reality TV show (“The Ultimate Fighter”), as well as taped and live fight cards for broadcast on the cable network, has found a niche in the American sports scene. It now rivals — some would argue it has surpassed — boxing in popularity. Its pay-per-view events now frequently outdraw the biggest boxing and professional wrestling events. When Sherk fought Diaz in April in UFC 59: Reality Check, the PPV draw reportedly approached 500,000 buys.

The demand for its product has become so great that the UFC continues to add fight cards throughout the year. Because of this, it needs more fighters, more high-profile matches to fill the cards.

The lightweight (145-155 pounds) division was added recently with that in mind.

The new division might be Sherk’s ticket to a world title. At 5-foot-6, he typically walks around at 175 pounds. While that makes it easy for him to fight as a 170-pound welterweight, it often confronts him with size disadvantages against guys who normally maintain weight 15 pounds or more heavier than he does.

“To make weight as a 170-pounder, all I have to do is skip breakfast,” Sherk says.

Has wrestling background

But Sherk has a wrestling background, so he’s no stranger to cutting weight, including amounts exceeding five pounds. The lightweight division offers him an opportunity to fight opponents closer to his natural size, rather than larger guys who cut 15 or 20 pounds just to get to 170 pounds.

And the opportunity to fight for a vacant world title — he’ll face Kenny Florian (7-2-0) at Mandalay Bay in the UFC 64 pay-per-view event — is something Sherk couldn’t pass up. Especially not after the way his first title fight turned out for him.

“I’ve thought a lot about wanting to win a world title,” he says. “I lost my first chance against Matt Hughes, who’s the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. This is another chance for me.

“This is a pivotal fight for me. I can make a big impression and get more publicity. The UFC now is the Super Bowl of MMA. Everyone wants to fight in the UFC. It’s 10 times bigger than it was when I first fought in it and the paydays have tripled.”

As much as Sherk loves to train and compete, now it’s also about the money. That’s the way it is as a professional. The money his fighting abilities generate through events, sponsorships and training other fighters is his only income. The days of trying to juggle a full-time job and a fight career are long gone.

“When you’re a professional fighter, you body is your job,” Sherk says. “It’s your work. You do everything you can to keep it as healthy as possible.”

For Sherk, that means training six days a week, two to four times a day. It means watching what he eats and getting as much rest as he can in a life that also includes a wife and two infant sons. It means regular visits to the chiropractor and physical therapist.

But fighting, even training to fight, is a violent way of life. The body takes a beating.

“I’m banged up all of the time,” Sherk says. “When I go to see my chiropractor, every week I have a new injury for him. It has gotten to the point that, after training hard for four months for a fight, if it moves, it hurts.”

Maintains his health

Sherk has to consider him fortunate, however, to have been able to maintain his health to the degree he has for as long as he has in such a hazardous profession. He has suffered only — only? — two concussions and numerous dislocated fingers and toes. No broken bones or surgeries on his medical record. To have received only 35 stitches in a life filled first with wrestling and now mixed martial arts is practically the equivalent of being unscathed.

The hazards and rigors are certainly nothing to dissuade someone like Sherk. Not with his competitive fire. Especially not now, so close to a world title that he can almost taste it.

“This is a second chance for me,” he says. “Second chances don’t come around often and third chances happen even less than that. I can’t afford to let this pass by.”

Even if it means having to do something he claims not to enjoy:

Like knocking the snot out of another guy.

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